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An Alternate History of Horror: Part XI. The Idiot Box

By Ryan Fleming.

They are, in fact, early televisions.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

After experiments throughout the 1920s and 1930s, development of television was interrupted by the Second World War. It would not set the medium back for long, since shortly after the War, adoption of the device became more common. Within a decade, it had become a major part of mass media, advertising, entertainment, and shaping public opinion. It also quickly acquired the sobriquets of the idiot box (in the United States) and the idiot’s lantern (in the United Kingdom). Simultaneously, it supplanted both cinema and radio as major forms of entertainment to the masses, whilst at the same time, the influence of both was massive in both the content and talent that viewers got in the early years of television.

This even extended to horror, which has been a genre on television since the mass introduction of the medium in the late 1940s. What sort of horror content made it to television varied widely across years and across cultures. The micromanaging of television content to appease advertisers in commercial television or public opinion in the case of public service television could hamstring horror storytelling, but it also allowed for new ways of storytelling that had been developing since the 1800s.

The style of horror storytelling on television can be divided into three broad categories: the anthology, the episodic, and the serial. Anthology as in standalone episodes each telling a story without recurring character and setting. Episodic as in standalone episodes each telling a story with recurring characters and setting. And serial as in a continuing story told over multiple episodes with the same characters and setting. The popularity of these styles has gone back and forth in popularity in horror as with television programming as a whole. Are any of these better or worse for the horror genre specifically compared to the others?

In our look at horror radio, we discussed how many of the successful radio genre anthology programmes received television adaptations in the late 1940s and early 1950s. NBC brought Lights Out to television as a regular programme in 1949, and it would air until 1952 when it was cancelled following ratings decline compared to the new sitcom I Love Lucy airing during the same time on CBS. CBS would also adapt one of their radio genre anthologies in the shape of Suspense, which aired from 1949 to 1952. These early attempts did not garner much mass appeal the same way their radio predecessors did, but that was about to change.

True horror. I Love Lucy, 1956.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The late 1950s to the mid-1960s can be described as the heyday of genre anthology programmes on US television. Two of the most enduring programmes from this era had a measure of independence from network auspices thanks to having prolific names overseeing them. Alfred Hitchcock had played a part in getting Suspense launched as a radio drama on CBS in 1942 by directing their audition (what in television is called a pilot). It was an adaptation of The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes, which Hitchcock had previously adapted as a silent film in the UK as The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. In 1955, he would lend more than his directing ability to CBS with the launch of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Hitchcock would direct a number of episodes of the season, but more famously he introduced all 361 episodes of the programmes that aired from 1955 to 1965. Although mostly committed to the thrillers that the director was known for, the series would veer frequently into outright horror and science fiction on occasion. It would be a stepping stone on the careers of actors like Steve McQueen, who appeared in the famous episode Man from the South, adapted from the Roald Dahl short story and featuring horror stalwart Peter Lorre. It would also provide an early directing opportunity for William Friedkin, later to direct The French Connection (1971) and horror classic The Exorcist (1973), directed the last ever episode of the show (by then retitled The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) and recalled being admonished by Hitchcock during a visit to the set, for not wearing a tie whilst directing.

Where would horror be without Peter Lorre?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In terms of storytelling, the first season episode Shopping for Death, written by Ray Bradbury, focusing on the likelihood of murder being committed increasing at certain temperatures, would provide the heat wave backdrop of Spike Lee’s seminal 1989 film Do The Right Thing. Several of the writers, either writing screenplays themselves or via adaptation, had cut their teeth during the latter days of the pulp magazines. These included Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Frederic Brown, and Cornell Woolrich. Bradbury also worked on another iconic genre anthology programme of the era, alongside other pulp luminaries such as Charles Beaumont: The Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone had been a project spearheaded by Rod Serling, one of television’s earliest star writers. Serling had tired of the constant changes demanded by programme sponsors, which included such pettiness as a line from his famous play Requiem for a Heavyweight having to be scrapped because a character asked for a match and their sponsor sold lighters, or a programme sponsored by the Ford Motor Company having to alter a New York City skyline backdrop to remove the Chrysler Building.

These reached a head when a play inspired by the murder of Emmett Till for the United States Steel Hour. At first the script was changed from a town in the South utterly unrepentant at their crime, which had become anti-Semitic in nature, before it became an anywhere town and the victim a foreigner. Unsurprisingly, despite the changes, those that would have complained about the original version would still have found reason to complain about the changed version. Serling hoped that a programme focused on science fiction scenarios and settings would inspire less interference in tackling controversial subjects. Though it was remembered primarily as a science fiction series, The Twilight Zone told stories that varied from science fiction to fantasy to outright horror. These included an adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s 1941 radio play The Hitch-Hiker, which turned the protagonist from a man, originally played by Orson Welles, to a woman, played by Inger Stevens. Curiously, the vitriol one might expect in the modern day was absent more than half a century ago. It would prove even more influential in genre storytelling, both in television and film, than Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and has been revived a total of three times since its original 1959-1964 run.

The success of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone would inspire several other genre anthologies. ABC would air Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond from 1959 to 1961 and would cut a similar vein to The Twilight Zone albeit with more of an emphasis on the supernatural than science fiction and purported to tell true stories based on real accounts. Every episode of One Step Beyond was directed by series host John Newland, who would also direct episodes of NBC’s Thriller (1961-62), a short-lived anthology hosted by Boris Karloff and the only one from this age almost fully dedicated towards horror and thriller tales. Later efforts included The Outer Limits (1963-65) on ABC, created by Leslie Stevens, which had a science fiction focus but with a heavy emphasis on grotesque monsters in its first season. Rod Serling returned to the genre in 1969 with Night Gallery, another anthology series but with much more of an emphasis on horror than science fiction.

Anthology genre programmes in the United States have gone in and out of popularity since their heyday. One can usually align these periods with a revival of The Twilight Zone. The first such came from 1985 to 1989 alongside contemporaries such as a revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985-1989); Amazing Stories, created by Steven Spielbergg (1985-1987); Tales from the Dark Side, created by horror director George A. Romero (1983-1988), and, perhaps most famously, Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996), an adaptation of EC Comics tales that attracted a lot of top Hollywood talent in front of and behind the camera.

Another brief revival of The Twilight Zone, hosted by Forest Whitaker, came in 2002; the same year a long-running revival of The Outer Limits ended a seven-season run that began in 1995. That decade would later see the debut of Masters of Horror (2005-2007), which brought feature length stories from some of the most prominent horror film directors to the small screen; as well as Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King (2006), a single season of tales adapted from the famous horror author.

Most recently, The Twilight Zone was revived for two seasons 2019-2020 hosted by horror and comedy writer/director Jordan Peele. Others of this era, now part of the streaming services rather than television networks, include Creepshow, based on Shudder, the 1982 film by Stephen King and George A. Romero; and Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, a Gothic series developed by del Toro for Netflix.

The original decline of the genre anthology series coincided with the wider decline of anthology programmes in drama. In their place were episodic series based around actors playing the same character week after week. There was still crossover in writers, with the original incarnation of Star Trek (1966-1969) telling tales told by writers that had come through the pulp magazine, genre anthology school of storytelling like Bloch, Richard Matheson, Jerry Sohl, and Theodore Sturgeon. They even adapted Frederic Brown’s 1944 short story Arena from Astounding Science Fiction in 1967. Whilst television science fiction was most definitely a thing, there were very few horror-focused episodic television series that decade. The 1970s brought the heyday of the television film, and with this, horror content was frequently back on the air.

Unlike today when film and television studios are usually part of the same corporate umbrella, in the first decades of television’s popularity, the two mediums suffered a contemptuous relationship. This was despite considerable overlap in the talent involved in production of both, given the very incestuous industry that is Hollywood filmmaking. Film studios were hesitant to release their films on television, in an era before home video when re-releases could account for major revenue for the studios. Most films they allowed the television networks to air were considered of a lower quality and well past their cinematic re-release potential – such as the Shock! package of 52 classic horror films from Universal Studios sold from 1957 onwards. On the other side of the fence, the television networks worried that film programming would loosen their hold on local affiliates and encourage direct deals between those, advertisers, and the film studios. The television film was a development from these hissy fits. To keep audiences in their living rooms and not going out to the cinema, many television films involved escapist or sensational subject matters, including horror fiction.

Among the most notable horror-themed television films of the 1970s is Duel (1971), the first feature film from director Steven Spielberg (written by Richard Matheson) whose success led to his future works which makes modern popular culture look very different if he doesn’t go on to make Jaws (1975) or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Dan Curtis specialised in horror television films during the 1970s, as writer, as director, and as producer at varying times. His efforts include classical adaptations such as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1968), Frankenstein (1973), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1974), and The Turn of the Screw (1974). Horror anthologies such as those done by the British studios Ealing and Amicus like Trilogy of Terror (1975) and Dead of Night (1977). And modern set horror pieces such as The Night Stalker (1972), The Night Stranger (1973), The Norliss Tapes (1973), and Scream of the Wolf (1974). Despite most of these being aired on a single television netowrk (ABC), it is curious these never became a recognised strand such as those done by Amicus, Hammer, or American International.

Most of Curtis’s modern set efforts all fall into the same subgenre of horror that television amongst genres seems to have a particular prediliction toward: the occult detective. The stock character had appeared in prose before, but the 1970s saw many examples. A lot of these television films doubled as pilots for proposed television series. Some were successful, like The Sixth Sense (1971), which aired for two seasons on ABC, and The Night Stalker, which aired as Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975) on the same network. That there are far more pilots than programmes commissioned for even a single season implies that perhaps horror was a tough television sell in the 1970s, but there is perhaps a version of 1970s television littered with as many occult detectives on television as police detectives. Shows based on the likes of Fear No Evil (1969) or its sequel Ritual of Evil (1970), both starring Louis Jourdan. There was also Baffled!, a UK production from ITC Entertainment starring Leonard Nimoy, and Spectre, created by another Star Trek name: Gene Rodenberry. Spectre was one of several pilots created by Rodenberry in the 1970s between the cancellation of Star Trek on television and its emergence as a film series in 1979. If he was busy in the late 1970s working on a series based on Spectre, his involvement in the first Star Trek film may be reduced to a minimum as a result.

Despite only being on the air for a single season, Kolchak: The Night Stalker can brag a television lineage that stretches from The X-Files to Better Call Saul, from The Sopranos to House of the Dragon. The success of The X-Files (1993-2002) finally brought the occult detective to live-action vogue in the 1990s. The UFO-hunting FBI agents were soon joined by Millennium (1996-1999), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Angel (1999-2004), and Supernatural (2005-2020). However, The X-Files was preceded by previous mixings of the detective and supernatural such as the outright horror themed Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-1990), which famously did not have any thematic elements shared with the Friday the 13th film series, unlike fellow film spin-off Freddy’s Nightmares (1988-1990); and Forever Knight (1992-1996), featuring a vampire police detective in contemporary Toronto.

It should also be remembered that the period from the very end of the 1980s to the middle part of the 2000s represented a boom period for the number of genre television shows. Mostly leaning towards science fiction like The X-Files, various Star Trek spin-offs (1987-2005, multiple shows), and Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007); but also fantasy programmes like Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001) and aforementioned horror titles. Regardless, the influence of The X-Files specifically on horror television content (more so than science fiction) is undeniable.

Weekly, episodic horror content faces a unique challenge amongst television genres. The simple fact is that it is difficult to keep audiences scared for part of an hour a week, week after week. The audience might not be fully on board with the mortal peril Kolchak, Mulder and Scully, or Buffy are facing when we know that they’ll be back again next week. At least when it came to fiction aimed at adults; television horror fiction aimed at children had a very different trajectory, and longevity, but that’s a tale for a future article, one to give television’s greatest occult detective his dooby-due.

As with anthologies, television films and the popularity of genre programming, the trajectory of horror fiction on television ebbed and flowed with the trends in wider television drama. After decades of American television drama being dominated by series that saw a character or group of characters deal with a self-contained adventure, a technique carried over from the early television westerns, had finally grown to be considered trite with the rise of prestige television. These drama programmes like Oz (1997-2003), The Sopranos (1999-2007), and The Wire (2002-2008) told a continuing story with the same characters over multiple episodes. While this was a fairly novel technique in US television, it had been the norm in other countries since television’s earliest days.

Television drama in the United Kingdom owed more to the theatre than the radio. Its earliest horror, or horror-adjacent, programming beyond a strait-laced literary adaptation was Nigel Kneale’s The Quartermass Experiment (1953), a mix of horror and sci-fi like so many progenitor works across multiple mediums. In addition to Quartermass sequels, there were similar science fiction horror serials in the 1950s such as Kneale’s The Creature (1955), The Strange World of Planet X (1956), The Trollenberg Terror (1956). Even British televisions longest-running character could veer into horror as often as science fiction, with Doctor Who (1963 to present) famously sending children running behind their couches as various monsters would appear on-screen. These stories were again told in a serialised fashion with multiple multi-episode serials appearing within a single season. The period 1973-1977 in particular stands out under producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes going for a gothic atmosphere like the horror films of Hammer Film Productions. The period also saw a major backlash from the National Viewers and Listeners Association that the series had become too frightening for children. This was the same period that saw serials aimed at children like Children of the Stones (1977) and The Clifton House Mystery (1978) either tread the line with horror of leap over it.

Horror focused fiction on UK television would always have a brevity but saw a lot of variety in terms of storytelling. There were anthology series like Mystery and Imagination (1966-1970), Dead of Night (1972), Beasts (also Nigel Kneale – 1976), Supernatural (1977), Hammer House of Horror (1980), and Chiller (1995). The was also the annual strand A Ghost Story for Christmas, which would present a different horror television film each year from 1971 to 1978 with multiple later revivals and homages including Crooked House (2009). Many of these were adaptations of the works of M. R. James, a popular source for horror television films, also being adapted in standalone works like Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968) and Casting the Runes (1979). A special for a different holiday was 1992’s Ghostwatch, a Halloween special that presented itself as a live broadcast of a paranormal investigation. It even went so far as to cast famous light entertainment talent as themselves, including broadcaster Michael Parkinson and presenters Craig Charles, Sarah Greene, and Mike Smith. The broadcast, which ended with children’s television presenter Greene locked in a small cupboard with a ghost and popular chat show host Parkinson seemingly possessed, was raked over the coals by tabloids in the days to come and has not been rebroadcast in its home country since that night.

Oddly, the United Kingdom has seen almost as many parodies of horror television broadcast as it has actual horror television. These include Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible (2001), a parody of UK horror films of the 1960s and 1970s; Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004), a show-within-a-show parody of 1980s television; and horror looms large over the sitcoms formulated by The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002), or its members Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton in Psychoville (2009-2011) and Inside No 9 (2014 to present). Curiously enough, the last three series also provide different examples of anthology, episodic, and serialised storytelling with the writers veering back and forth to the point where the most recent is a pure anthology.

In comparison, the high watermark for horror sitcoms in the United States was the mid-1960s. The period from 1964-1966 saw competing programmes The Addams Family, adapted from Charles Addams’s comic strips, and The Munsters, using characters inspired by the Universal Studio’s horror films, aired concurrently on ABC and CBS, respectively. Like most sitcoms at the time, these told stories via standalone episodes. The only serial horror content on US television at that time was, bizarre as it might seem, soap operas. Dark Shadows (1966-1971) was the first success for Dan Curtis, a Gothic horror soap opera, and saw its imitator in the far shorter-lived Strange Paradise (1969-1970), a Canadian production. Despite Dark Shadows airing over 1200 episodes, it seemed that horror soaps might be a one-off thing.

1964. The Addams Family.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The success of the miniseries on US television made the horror miniseries a sporadic thing, almost always literary adaptations, usually by Stephen King. There were miniseries adaptations of Salem’s Lot (1979), It (1990), The Stand (1994), and many more often directed by King collaborator Mick Garris. Miniseries were usually intended as limited engagements, horror as a serialised television show, as opposed to a serial, would come far later. Some of the earliest examples of serialised horror television came from premium cable networks in the US that were already doing prestige drama doing horror, rather than from someone wanting to make horror but as a prestige drama. HBO had True Blood (2008-2014), adapted from The Southern Vampire Mysteries novel by Charlaine Harris, whilst AMC aired The Walking Dead (2010-2022), adapted from the comic series of the same name by Robert Kirman and Tony Moore. These both came at the height of popularity in vampire romantic fiction and post-apocalyptic zombie fiction, so again perhaps horror television was just responding to trends outside its medium.

Less successful was Harper’s Island (2009), a thirteen-episode series that went for a slasher style story, a few years after that genre had been sawed out of vogue. Despite that, its emphasis on telling a story over a single season and potentially having a second might presage another development that, whilst appearing on other genres, seems to be well-designed for horror. Seasonal anthology shows, where different stories are told in a single season under the same title, with or without returning cast, came into popularity in the 2010s. The most prolific of these is American Horror Story, which enters its twelth season in 2023, a massive feat for a horror or indeed any genre programme. The similarly formatted crime series True Detective (entering its fourth season in 2023) also drew from horror themes in its first and third seasons. The Terror is in a similar vein and horror themed, without recurring actors like American Horror Story. The first season (2018), based on Dan Simmons’ 2007 novel of the same name, was set upon a doomed UK Arctic expedition in the 1840s, whilst the second (2019) takes the story to America’s Japanese internment of the 1940s. Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting (2018-2020) also adapted Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) for its first season, but for its second adapted Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) as The Haunting of Bly Manor.

These seasonal stories lend themselves better to horror than fully serialised or even episodic because, though there might be another season still to come, it will be a totally new story. Unfortunately, it seems despite switching from episodic to serialised that the demand for large episode counts on US television comes at the expense of storytelling. Perhaps more so than episodic formats, since at least with them, the same story is not being ground down. It also leads to storytelling crutches such as mystery box formatting, which mars otherwise engaging horror themed shows such as 2021’s Yellowjackets.

Television has seen plenty of fantastic examples of horror fiction and unique methods of storytelling but, more than any other medium, it can hinder horror due to television specific concerns. In his 1981 non-fiction book Danse Macabre, Stephen King makes many pointed criticisms towards television illustrating horror. Looking at it from a US perspective, he describes it as subject to the whims of advertisers, networks, and censors in a way other mediums are not. Though perhaps not always subject to advertisers, television was a shaper of public opinion that had widespread reach social media users amount to a fraction of, and with that in mind, content intended to scare its audience would fall under a microscope more than others. King described it as: “A lot of sizzle and no steak.”

When done right, horror television can be the equal of any other medium, but it has always come at a compromise. When it doesn’t, when a work clearly labelled as a fictional programme inspires tabloid outrage, it can make the powers behind it sheepish about doing so later. If it’s successful, well that’s swell, can we have thirty-eight more just like it?

If it leans too much into horror, it can become a controversy. If it minimises the horror, then it veers into dark fantasy or melodrama, which perhaps explains why the genre translated as a soap opera for Dark Shadows. On the other hand, perhaps no other medium would combine horror, film noir, urban fantasy, and alternate history and having it reach a wide audience the way HBO did with the television film Cast a Deadly Spell (1991). Television might never have known properly what to do with horror, but that just seemed to encourage more experimentation.

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Ryan Fleming is the author of the SLP book Reid in Braid, a collection of short stories set in an independent Scotland after the UK was on the losing side in the Great War.


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